By Donald Rubbo:
I took the off-ramp on I-70 to our destination, Somerset, Pennsylvania, and I noticed a road sign in my peripheral vision: “Flight 93 National Memorial.” As the words registered in my mind, I felt a deep quickening, and a bit of shock. I hadn’t thought of the United flight that crashed on this field on September 11, 2001, and the heroes onboard, for many years.
I was supposed to be on that flight, and my wife changed my ticket to the Saturday before so that I could come home early. There but for the grace of God.
We had left California on March 1st, 2013, driving up I-5 to Portland, Oregon, staying a night with my good friend Ed Barrow, and continuing northward to see my long-time friend Chetana Michaan to do healing work on her. Leaving Bellingham, Washington, I had decided that we would travel the northern route, taking I-90 to visit Yellowstone, and then we planned to continue on a northern route. But on March 15, in Gardiner, Montana, after exploring as much of Yellowstone as was open that time of year, we were sitting in a bar/restaurant and I noticed the weather report on the television. A huge storm was brewing, starting in the Seattle, Washington, area and was going to be quickly moving eastward, with massive snowfall predicted. Understanding that the Universe was giving me early warning, I decided the best route would be to go south, to Colorado, and then east on I-70.
We stopped in Ward, Colorado, on Sunday, March 17 to stay with Dennis and KayAnne Solem (my wife’s sister and brother-in-law) for a few days, and planned to get back on the road Tuesday. But we stayed an extra day to help them in their search to replace their car that had previously been totaled in an accident.
Bright and early Wednesday morning, March 20, we packed the car back up and drove off. We stopped in Topeka, Kansas that night, and the next night in Indianapolis, Indiana.
While we were in Indianapolis we looked at the map to decide our next stopover. Cheryl Lynne calculated where we might be after six or seven hours of driving along I-70, and she chose Somerset, Pennsylvania, as our next stop.
Friday evening we pulled into town, and because we hadn’t booked a hotel online (our usual procedure,) we looked around town to see what was available. As we were checking into the hotel, I mentioned to the women at the front desk that it was eerie to find myself in Somerset, as I was supposed to have been on Flight 93 that day. The owner of the hotel, who came out from the back and had overheard the conversation, said to me, “You have to go to the memorial site. Here are the directions,” and he handed me a piece of paper. I hadn’t really planned on going there, my emotions then were mixed, but since the hotel owner was insisting, I thought perhaps it might be a good idea.
The next morning we drove the 18 miles to the memorial, and although it was a cold, late winter day, there was one car ahead of us waiting for the gates to be opened.
The driver got out of his car and picked up some brochures that were by the gate. He walked over to our car and handed me one of the brochures. He started talking, and introduced himself. His name was Max, he was a retired pilot for Continental Airlines, and his plane had been in the queue at Newark Airport the morning of September 11, 2001, waiting to take off, right behind United Flight 93. I told him that I was supposed to be on Flight 93 myself, and only wasn’t because I had decided to return home early. He said, “You have real angels around you,” and I said, “So do you!”
He got back in his car as the gates were opened by a park ranger.
We drove up the long road to the crash site and memorial, and I felt the hair on my body stand up. We parked in the parking lot. The pilot first parked several rows from us, and then drove up and parked next to our car. He seemed to need the closeness. We got out of our cars and together walked slowly up the walkway. He asked to take my picture with his cellphone to send to his wife.
Max told us that he knew it could very easily have been his plane that was chosen, his flight was scheduled to leave at about the same time as Flight 93, and by the grace of God he, his flight crew and his passengers were spared. The pilot told us his experiences that morning, of his flight to Orlando with a bunch of kids, and hearing bits and pieces from flight control about the unfolding horror. He and his co-pilot were first told that an ‘incident’ had happened, and then a little later that a plane had been hijacked. He told us he called the head flight attendant into the cockpit, and asked her to very casually walk through the cabin and see if any of the passengers looked nervous. She came back and reported that everyone seemed happy and cheerful. He then explained to her what he had been told, and asked her to bring him the crash axe, he was going to lock the cockpit door and if anyone tried to get into the cockpit he would kill them. Flight control directed him to land at another airport, but he requested that since he was so close to Orlando, to be allowed to complete the flight there. As his flight landed, he decided not to tell his passengers the terrible news.
This was his first visit to the memorial, and he stayed close to us as we made our way up to the crash site and the marble wall with the names of the crew and passengers.
There were only a handful of people that early at the memorial, but Max was so impressed that I had escaped the fiery death of Flight 93 that he told everyone, including the ranger standing guard, that I was supposed to be on that plane. One older woman from Minnesota was so overcome that she tearfully asked to hug me, and had her daughter take her picture with me. She said to me, “I am so glad you are still here.”
The unnatural, long rut carved into the ground and the boulder marking the site of the impact gave me a terrible sense of the reality of the crash, how the twisted, unfathomable intentions of a few changed the world forever that day.
Standing before the large memorial, gazing at the names of the passengers that were carved into the cold marble, I knew that Divine intervention was the only explanation that my name was not etched into this wall as well. God obviously had some more work for me to do.
Waves of powerful emotions washed over me, and tears came to my eyes.
In 2000 and 2001, I had been traveling to New York about every two months for two weeks at a time, to treat my mother as she went (successfully) through uterine cancer therapy. I always took Flight 91 to New York, and Flight 93 back to San Francisco. In early September my mother underwent surgery, for which I was there, and a few days later, she was well enough (her doctor found no evidence of cancer anywhere in her body, including in her removed uterus!) that I felt confident about my mother’s health and asked Cheryl Lynne to get me home earlier than planned. I took Flight 93 to San Francisco on Saturday, September 8, 2001.
Three days later, in our home in San Rafael, California, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, we were woken early by the clock radio with the unbelievable news of the attack. We rushed out of bed and turned on the television, and watched, horrified, as the events unfolded.
In the shock and horror of the moment, I didn’t realize that I had almost been on Flight 93, that I had been spared.
The Twin Towers held so much meaning for me, in the sixties and seventies I lived on Canal Street in lower Manhattan, the SoHo area, and I had watched the Towers rise; from the holes in the ground that were dug for the foundations to the very top, the Windows on the World restaurant. As a young child, I was excited to see all the old artifacts brought out of these pits: from wooden ships to ceramics, to glassware, attesting to the fascinating history of early settlements in New York. I had been to the rooftop of Tower One many times, and delighted in the view, in all directions, of the magnificent city of my birth.
My aunt, a Federal judge, worked in one of the Towers; on the morning of September 11, 2001, she watched from her seat on the bus as the planes struck. She called me on her cellphone to let me know she was okay, and to pray for everyone who was in the Towers to get out safely.
My brother, George, worked at one of the restaurants in Tower One, and of all days, he slept in that morning. God spared my family.
I immediately knew that I had to offer my healing prayers to New York, America, and to the world. Feeling the powerful need to do what I could to help, I went out to Gerstle Park to teach my early morning Tai Chi Ch’uan and Qigong class, and I led my students in cultivating and sending out powerful, loving, positive, healing energy.
Two weeks later, we organized a large healing circle in our community, hundreds of people, all of us united in sending out love, healing and restorative intentions to all of the victims of this dreadful attack on our nation, to my hometown, to my country, and to the world.
For most of my life, my purpose has been to help others on their paths to healing, to recovery, to becoming whole, of gathering people together to bring healing and peace to themselves and the world.
Last Saturday morning, standing at the Flight 93 National Memorial, guided to be there that particular day by Divine Providence, I realized that I hadn’t taken the time to process the enormity of how this tragedy impacted my life. Many thoughts went through my mind. As a martial artist, how would I have acted, and interacted, with these passengers who took decisive, heroic actions, knowing they were doomed and acting anyway? Reflecting on my past actions where I had come to the rescue, without thought of danger to myself, of others in distress, I’m fairly certain that I would have been right there with these heroes all the way.
I felt a close kinship and bond with each one of the passengers and crew, and deeply grateful for their heroism. I read Laura Catuzzi Grandcolas’ name, a woman from my adopted hometown of San Rafael, California. There is a memorial to her and her unborn child in downtown San Rafael. We passed it many times, but I hadn’t stopped to consider the coincidence.
I give thanks to the Divine and my Guardian Angel for sparing me that day, and offer prayers to the victims and their families. I have a renewed sense of purpose for my life. Making this world a better place for everyone has always been the fiber of my soul, but now I feel that a part of myself was returned to me last Saturday, I was made whole and my life’s work was affirmed.